The following is a guest post from retired Music Cataloger Sharon McKinley.
Ah, September. The month of warm days and crisp nights, when the leaves are still green but the summer flowers have given way to mums and asters. It’s the first month of school, as well, when a student’s thoughts might well still be outside in the fresh air. But you’re trapped now, kids, so let’s enjoy a few pieces of sheet music extolling the virtues of the school experience.
I remember “School Days”! We still sang Gus Edwards’ and Will D. Cobb’s classic hit of 1907 when I was a little kid 50 years later. Do children still sing it today, I wonder? Probably not. For one thing, check out these lyrics:
School days, school days
Dear old Golden Rule days
Reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hick’ry stick
You were my queen in calico
I was your bashful, barefoot beau
And you wrote on my slate, “I Love You, Joe”
When we were a couple o’ kids
I laugh to think that as an adult, I can never remember the words past “’Reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.” In real life, I don’t remember corporal punishment being used in school, but still. Rapping kids’ knuckles with a ruler would be frowned upon today, let alone using a stick on them, and the curriculum sounds a bit limited.
Let’s go back a bit further. Here is a different kind of school song, one that predates “School Days” by a few decades. “Come, Pretty Schoolgirl!” (Cincinnati: John Church & Co., 1883) is by the popular composer Henry Clay Work. It makes the not-surprising assumption that a bit of education is fine for a girl, but once it’s over, marriage is the next step. It IS still all about love. In this song, the girl is being wooed by a boy. But now that she’s graduating from school…well, graduate tomorrow and marry the same day sounded like a grand idea in those days, I’m sure. Girls might attend the town school, but let’s hope they had marriage potential, because they certainly weren’t expected to go any further. Here’s the chorus:
Come, pretty school girl! lay your books aside
You graduate tomorrow — tomorrow be my bride
My fortune share
And reign queen there
In the little white cottage on Evergreen Square.
Even further back, we find music written for or dedicated to the scholars at female institutes. These were no simple public schools. With imposing buildings and small student-teacher ratios, they were finishing schools for the daughters of the elite. The girls learned a lot beyond the basics, and by the 1850s, some schools even taught the sciences. No playful or amorous ditties for these upper-class young women. Composers wrote serious art pieces for accomplished student pianists, such as P.H. Masi’s “Norfolk Female Institute Polka and Schottisch.” (Baltimore: Miller & Beacham, 1853). Masi also wrote “The Norfolk Female Institute Quadrilles.” (Baltimore: Miller & Beacham, 1855). Every girl and her family would surely have wanted to own these works, especially given, as advertised on the cover, that the quadrilles were “adapted to the new figures.” Ah, right up-to-date with the hottest dance moves of the day. The cover art was appealing as well, often featuring those imposing buildings and beautifully dressed students.
There was a whole different mind-set in less rarified circles. “School Days, or, Nellie & Rosie” (Brooklyn: Geo. Molineux, c1879 ) was written for and sung by Murphy & Morton at the San Francisco Minstrels hall in New York City. Certainly hundreds of happy theater-goers who had caught their act would be attracted by this one. It’s all about two boys who fall for the two Irish girls from the shanty down the lane. Interesting that there is no shame in living in a formerly vacant shack, and school was where they met. The performers were Irish, and the intended audience likely was, too. So much nostalgia is woven into these songs; composers took full advantage of fond memories of the good old days.
G.H. Goodwin’s “Our School Boy Days” (Springfield, Mass.: published by the author, 1880 ) is another sentimental affair, recalling the halcyon days of learning. This composer will never forget his friends, and he’ll have you sniffling along by the end.
Given the widespread use of that hickory stick back in the day, one can only imagine that sitting in a stuffy classroom might have been far preferable to employment in manual labor or even the trades, as so many boys would discover soon enough. So let us leave them with their happy memories of love kindled and stalwart comrades remembered.